Release Date: Oct 14, 2014
Record label: Slate Creek Records
Genre(s): Country, Americana, Contemporary Country, Country-Pop
Nashville's embrace of what music critic Jody Rosen has termed "bro country" has had a curious and, it seems to me, beneficial effect on many up-and-coming artists. The glossy tits-and-beer songs that dominate much of commercial country music may be lucrative, but they represent a creative dead end. For the sizable number of songwriters who've doggedly maintained an approach rooted in storytelling (the cornerstone of country music) and social commentary (its cathedral ceiling), every clever, progressive song has landed as a kind of antidote to what's on the radio.
When Angaleena Presley (no relation) sings about the American middle class the subject is not condo-living yuppies but “work-too-much” folks like her coal-miner father, schoolteacher mother, and her former Walmart drone self, before she found fame with Nashville’s Pistol Annies. This solo debut has some of that trio’s platinum-selling sass, but its mood is more downbeat, full of well-etched social cameos: drunk husbands, pregnant teens, congregations hooked on prescription drugs, “a car full of pillbillies looking to score”. The backings are polished modern country, but Presley’s vocal and lyrical touch are exceptional on an impressive state-of-the-nation album.
The third and last of the Pistol Annies to deliver her own solo record, Angaleena Presley operates on a more intimate scale than either Miranda Lambert or Ashley Monroe. Lambert trades on her bravado, Monroe on her savviness, but Presley relies on subtlety on American Middle Class, her long-awaited 2014 solo debut. Attitude isn't of paramount importance here, nor is the kind of flashy production that would send her into the country charts.
Country music is in the middle of a boom in songwriters whose commitment mostly rests on narratives. Story songs were vital from the beginning, but lately, there are people who have these tiny writerly details: excellent metaphors, beautiful allusions, wry jokes. Delightfully, there are often songs about the genre, about how the landscape works to inform the genre, or how religion functions within both country music itself and within this landscape, or even about how vernacular music affects the creation of more formally constructed works.
Best known for her work with Pistol Annies, Angaleena Presley is the latest hard-nosed country traditionalist to challenge Nashville's frat-party tendencies. On the first half of her impressive solo debut, Presley fills her disappearing middle-class blues with sharp, compassionate tales of unfulfilled pensions and steep tuition bills. Later on, the bona fide coal miner's daughter changes gears with a series of vulnerable country-soul ballads that find her longing for some domestic stability.
Sincerity went out of fashion, like, two decades ago, right? That’s one reason for the paucity of issues-minded pop in recent years. Whatever the real enemy is — capitalism, narcissism or any of their cousins — pop music has become an underused vehicle for unironic statements of change, a state of affairs that qualifies Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” as a real empowerment anthem. Broadly speaking, sloganeering has been exiled to the fringes.
Angaleena Presley's strong solo debut album, American Middle Class, is sure to be lumped in with work from country's other prominent female singers from the last few years. This association is partially because Presley first gained attention as a member of the Pistol Annies with Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert. It also happens by default because so few of the mass-appeal records coming out of Nashville right now are made by women (just five of the top 25 Hot Country Songs currently feature lead female vocals).